A few years ago I listened in amazement as a friend of mine, a prominent social critic, told a group of his fellow conservatives who had gathered to talk about the gay-rights movement that “we’re turning this thing around.” Normally my friend was so astute an observer of the twists and turns in public opinion on the major issues of the day that I found it hard to understand how he could have gone so far wrong in judging the way this one was moving. Or was it perhaps I who had gone completely off the rails in believing that the great campaign to legitimize homosexuality and to establish it as a fully acceptable “alternative lifestyle” was succeeding beyond even its own wildest expectations? Was he crazy, or was I?
In the ensuing discussion, I based my argument on what seemed to me the almost complete triumph of the gay-rights agenda and its sustaining attitudes in all the institutions of the culture, from the universities and the arts to the media of information and entertainment and even to an incredible extent (considering that the Bible unequivocally prohibits homosexuality as an “abomination”) in the churches. He then countered this sketch of the culture with evidence drawn from the polity. He pointed to the retreat that public opinion had forced upon President Clinton when he proposed to end all restrictions on gays in the military, and he also cited a number of recent local referenda in which homosexuals had been denied the protected status they sought through inclusion in antidiscrimination laws.
Those referenda would later be struck down by the courts—but that would neither have surprised my friend nor cut any ice with him. Thanks to their umbilical connection to the universities through the law schools, as well as their relative insulation from the pressures of majority sentiment, the courts in his scheme of things (and in mine, for that matter) were less a part of the polity than a part of the culture; and the culture, he readily stipulated, was for the time being a lost cause from the conservative point of view.
Neither of us, then, was crazy; we just had our eyes on different realities; and the debate was temporarily resolved by a reciprocal concession on my part that he was probably as right about the polity as he acknowledged I was about the culture. This, however, still left open the question of which realm would ultimately prove decisive, and on that question we continued to disagree. His bet was that in an increasingly conservative political climate, the culture would sooner or later either wind up following the election returns where homosexuality was concerned, just as it was already doing on other issues like the family, welfare, and crime; or, short of that, it would prove powerless to resist the pressures of majority sentiment. My guess was that in this area, if not necessarily in all others, the election returns would in the end largely be determined by the culture.
Not having checked back lately, I cannot say whether or not my friend has changed his mind about the balance of forces on this particular front of the ongoing war between the culture and the polity. But assuming that he still holds the same view, he could now justify himself by pointing to the overwhelming congressional vote cast this past September in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate) and the even more powerful evidence of President Clinton’s willingness to sign it. Designed mainly to enable individual state legislatures to outlaw same-sex marriages even if a court in another state sanctions such unions, this bill’s passage represented a clear defeat of the culture by the polity. After all, gay marriage was a favorite cause with the institutions of the culture, and yet in this instance they were trumped by majority sentiment expressing itself through the democratically elected institutions of the polity.
My friend could also cite the Senate’s rejection, on the very same day, of a bill that would have banned discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace. Even though the vote in this case was as close (50-49) as the other was lopsided, it still amounted to a defeat of the gay-rights movement within the political realm—and on an objective that was, if anything, even more enthusiastically endorsed by the culture than same-sex marriage.
Not having changed my mind either, I can argue that these victories over the gay-rights movement were less impressive than they seemed. Yes, the Defense of Marriage Act passed overwhelmingly, but it was a remarkably timid bill. As the syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher observes:
It does not ban gay marriage. It doesn’t even require that states that adopt gay marriage do so through democratic means. To the citizens of Hawaii, where a handful of lawyers appear poised to impose gay marriage on the majority, the federal government turns its back. . . .
Furthermore, this bill flies in the face of what the New York Times describes as “an accelerating trend among companies and local governments to extend health benefits to employees’ gay partners”—that is, to treat them as though they were legally married couples. Thus far, such policies have been adopted by 36 cities, 12 counties, and 4 states. They have also been instituted voluntarily by 313 companies, the largest of which, IBM, ironically extends spousal benefits only to cohabiting homosexual couples, and refuses to accord the same privileges to heterosexual couples living together without benefit of clergy. It is also worth noting that at least two of these companies were founded and until quite recently headed by men closely identified with conservative causes—Coors and Disney. (The latter, following through on the logic of its stand on spousal benefits, also permits special Gay Days at Disney World which are promoted by their sponsors with posters depicting Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as a hand-holding couple.)
As for the antidiscrimination bill, in falling short by only one vote, it presages the almost inevitable addition, and soon, of homosexuals to the already rather long list of minorities in a position to demand not only freedom from discrimination but the kind of preferential treatment euphemistically known as affirmative action. “Strategically,” writes the executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “gay people have found far more success in the courts than in Congress,” but the closeness of the vote in the Senate on the antidiscrimination bill indicates that Congress is now starting to catch up.
There are other bits of evidence suggesting even more strongly that the polity is now following the culture on the question of homosexuality. Consider, to begin with, the following item, which was published in the New York Times only a day after the two votes in the Senate:
Not so long ago, an openly gay candidate running for office in the Bible Belt or any rural area could expect to end up as political road kill. Times may be changing. In Oklahoma, the Democrats have nominated Paul Barby . . . to face Frank D. Lucas, the incumbent in the Sixth Congressional District. Just before Mr. Barby announced his candidacy, he told Democrats by letter that he is a homosexual. The district is largely rural, taking up the western half of the state, and is full of socially conservative Southern Baptists. But, to the surprise of many of Mr. Barby’s supporters, no one has made an issue of his sexual orientation. And Mr. Lucas says he will not make any fuss over it.
This was not liberal Massachusetts, where Congressman Barney Frank managed to win reelection even after the discovery that his Washington residence had been used as a base of operations by a gay prostitute, and where his colleague, Congressman Gerry Studds, also survived politically even after it was revealed that he had been involved sexually with a young boy working as a Senate page. This was Oklahoma, a state where, as the Times reminds us, David L. Boren, running for the Senate in 1978, “felt compelled to swear on a Bible that he was heterosexual” after rumors to the contrary had been brought up by his opponent.
Nor was the new trend confined to Democrats. A day or two after the story about Paul Barby was published in the Times, a leading Republican political consultant in New York was “outed,” and when interviewed by a New York Post reporter, nonchalantly confirmed the report with the comment: “Please, I don’t want to be rude, but let me stifle a yawn.” In a similar vein, one of his clients, Governor George Pataki, remarked: “Somebody must be getting desperate if they think this is a story.” And another client, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, asked: “Are we for real here? Please.”
A dismissive response like this was perhaps to be expected in New York, even among conservative Republicans. But as the Times also informed us, everything’s up to date in Arizona, too. In that traditionally conservative stronghold,
there has been no great talk-radio clamor or stump-speech vitriol directed at a six-term Congressman, Jim Kolbe, since he acknowledged a few weeks ago that he is homosexual. Mr. Kolbe, a Republican, . . . now has a wide lead in general-election polls . . . and his decision spurred another Arizona officeholder, Neil Giuliano, the Republican Mayor of Tempe, to announce late last month that he too is gay.
Then there is Congressman Steve Gunderson, who was reelected (albeit with some difficulty) by the people of his rural Wisconsin district even after being outed as a homosexual. Not only that, but Newt Gingrich—whose reputation for homophobia yields nothing to Pat Robertson’s or Pat Buchanan’s—emphatically turned down Gunderson’s offer to resign from the Republican leadership in the House (“I would never ask you to resign over that nonsense”), and later topped things off by putting him in charge of a task force to reform the schools of Washington, D.C. Now Gingrich has also given a blurb to House and Home, the treacly book Gunderson has written with his lover, Rob Morris, about “the political and personal journey of a gay Republican Congressman and the man with whom he created a family.”1
What all these examples demonstrate is that little by little, but with increasing momentum, the approving attitude of the culture toward homosexuality is overcoming the resistance of majority sentiment as reflected in the polity. To anyone who remembers how different it used to be, this is bound to seem a truly astonishing development. For not so long ago, and even within the most advanced sectors of the culture, it was still taken pretty much for granted that homosexuality was, quite simply, a perversion.
Certainly this was true of the sector I knew best, the literary world. In that world, male homosexuals (but not, so far as one could tell, lesbians) were very prominent, and yet they mostly seemed to share in the almost universally held assumption that there was something wrong with homosexuality.
To be sure, very few literary people, whether straight or gay, thought that it was morally wrong (although some undoubtedly did, in spite of themselves); they saw it, rather, as the symptom of an illness, the product of a neurotic disorder which could in certain cases be cured by psychoanalysis but which in most others was probably beyond the reach of treatment. I cannot recall any speculation such as has become common lately about a “gay gene,” but there was a kind of commonsense recognition that some homosexuals were just born that way, and that little or nothing could be done about it. They might, for one reason or another, decide to get married and have children, but their true sexual desires would remain focused on men, and it was with men that they would commit adultery if (or more likely when) they did. We were all familiar with such cases, especially among our friends and counterparts in England. Many of them had been initiated into homosexuality in boarding school and they then, as it were, paid their debt to society by marrying and raising families while continuing to depend for sexual satisfaction on other men, usually the younger and more lower-class the better.
To say, however, that homosexuality was generally regarded as a perversion is to tell only one part of the story. The other part had to do with the striking fact that so many artists past and present—poets, novelists, composers, painters, and sculptors, as well as actors and dancers and instrumentalists and impresarios—were homosexual. Even homosexuals who were not themselves important artists tended to be great appreciators of art. They also tended to be amusing companions, much given to gossip as catty as it was witty and only slightly spoiled by the hearer’s strong suspicion that he himself would become its object as soon as he was out of earshot.
It was, then, a complicated attitude: the recognition that homosexuality bred a special talent for what, in that world, was the most highly valued of all human activities coexisted with the belief that it was a perversion. Another complication was that even many of the homosexuals who went along with this latter view of their own erotic appetites simultaneously thought, or professed to think, that all men shared in those appetites if they but knew it. “Try it, you’ll like it,” they would flirtatiously say in a camp adaptation of a popular advertising slogan of the day. Along the same lines, they would attribute what would later be called homophobia (a word that did not then exist) to “HP” (homosexual panic) or “HD” (homosexual dread)—that is, a defense against the temptation to engage in homosexual activity.
Nowadays the radicals within the gay community, and the professors who teach Gay and Lesbian Studies in the universities, like to call themselves “queer.” Whatever this may inadvertently reveal, it is intended as a piece of in your-face bravado, a declaration that homosexuals are rebels against a repressive society, not an admission that homosexuality is a perversion. Two recent cases in point are the books Midlife Queer by Martin Duberman and The Material Queer, edited by Donald Morton. There is also Beyond Queer, an anthology edited by Bruce Bawer whose purpose is to challenge the “Gay Left Orthodoxy” represented by the term queer. (Bawer also helped Gunderson and Morris write their book.) Indeed, no homosexual today would be caught dead agreeing that homosexuality is a perversion, or even an illness, and almost the only heterosexuals with the nerve openly to endorse such a retrograde view are conservative Christians.
What set the process in motion through which homosexuality would eventually be legitimated in every sense was its transformation from a private condition into a political movement. The first effort to accomplish this was made in the early 1950’s with the founding of the Mattachine Society by a radical leftist named Harry Hay- Will Roscoe, the editor of Radically Gay, a collection of Hay’s papers,2 credits him with originating the idea that “Lesbians and gay men differ from heterosexuals much as African-Americans, Latinos, Japanese-Americans, and other ethnic groups differ from Euro-Americans,” and that homosexuals could and should overcome their self-hatred and their shame and take pride in their “lovely sexuality.” Around the same time, the same idea was expressed by Donald Webster Cory in The Homosexual in America:
We who are homosexual are a minority, not only numerically, but also as a result of a caste-like status in society. . . . Our minority status is similar, in a variety of respects, to that of national, religious, and other ethnic groups: in the denial of civil liberties; in the legal, extra-legal, and quasi-legal discrimination; in the assignment of an inferior social position; in the exclusion from the mainstream of life and culture.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of this idea to the changes that lay ahead, but it turned out to be premature. In those days, very few people, whether gay or straight, were prepared to see homosexuality as comparable to race or ethnicity, or as something in which to take pride, and so the Mattachine Society soon faded away.
It was only in the late 60’s that its animating idea really took hold among homosexuals, and by that time the activists among them could draw on the experience of the various protest movements of the decade just past. Borrowing tactics from the New Left and the counterculture that were, to quote Francis Mark Mondimore in A Natural History of Homosexuality,3 “aggressive and confrontational,” they began by staging boisterous demonstrations against obvious targets like police harassment. But then, Mondimore writes:
Emboldened by their successes in opposing police harassment, gay-liberation activists turned their attention to another historical opponent: the psychiatric profession. In 1970, gay activists stormed the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, confronted psychoanalyst Irving Bieber during a panel discussion on homosexuality, and called him a “motherfucker” in front of his shocked colleagues.
To this the APA responded exactly as the universities had done earlier when they were attacked by student activists: it capitulated. Rather than expressing outrage, “sympathetic psychiatrists” immediately joined the gay liberationists in demanding that the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual be revised to eliminate homosexuality from the list of mental disorders on which it had long been included. Within three years, they got their wish, and in short order the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers followed suit.
In altering its long-held view of homosexuality as a mental disorder, of course, the APA claimed that it was bowing to the weight of scientific evidence. But such “evidence” had been available for a long time, and it was only when political pressure was exerted that the APA suddenly found it persuasive. Moreover, much of it was drawn from the data compiled by Alfred Kinsey, and yet when his estimate of the incidence of male homosexuality (10 percent) would later be exposed as wildly overblown by a much more rigorous study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (which arrived at a figure of 2.6 percent), and by the even more definitive Sex in America (2.8 percent), the APA would make no move to reverse itself again. Clearly it was politics, not science, that drove homosexuality off the association’s list of mental disorders, and it is politics, not science, that keeps it off.
With homosexuality officially certified as a perfectly healthy form of sexual expression, the next step was to get it defined as inborn. Gone were the days when any homosexual would dare attribute homophobia to HD or HP, with the underlying assumption that anyone was capable of becoming homosexual. According to the new party line, homosexuality was in no degree a matter of choice; it was always and entirely an involuntary condition. As such, it was beyond the reach of moral judgment, for how could a person be judged for acting in accordance with his true nature or, as religiously inclined homosexuals would put it, in accordance with the way God created him? (Congressman Gunderson: “I suddenly heard a strong and compassionate voice speak to me. ‘Why are you so unaccepting of the person I made you to be?’ the voice asked. ‘Why, if it’s okay with me, isn’t it okay with you?’”)
Never mind that the same logic would confer moral legitimation on pedophiles, who also could and did claim that they were made that way and were therefore unable to help themselves. This did not prevent the argument from working in connection with homosexuals, just as it simultaneously served to get homosexuals included in the category of oppressed minority groups by defining their condition as no more a matter of choice than race or ethnicity. Thus, in explaining why he meant to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, Senator Charles Robb of Virginia could bring the two themes of genetic programming and race neatly together:
If homosexuality is an inalienable characteristic, which cannot be altered by counseling or willpower, then moral objections to gay marriage do not appear to differ significantly from moral objections to interracial marriages.
This new definition of homosexuality carried yet another advantage—it meant that children were not at risk of being seduced into homosexuality by homosexual teachers or encouraged into it by homosexual propaganda in the schools. On the contrary: children born straight would be taught tolerance of their naturally homosexual classmates who, instead of being forced as in the benighted past to struggle against their true sexual nature, would learn to accept and live happily with it.
As the psychiatrists were coerced into lending the authority of “science” to the claim that homosexuality was as natural and healthy as heterosexuality, so the biologists and the geneticists now came under pressure to provide scientific proof that homosexuals were all born and not made. Biology and genetics being much harder sciences than psychiatry, a quick and decisive victory on this front such as had been achieved over the APA could not be expected. Besides, it was considered virtually criminal to bring up genes in the case of intelligence—anyone who needed reminding on that score would soon get it in the form of the assault on Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein for emphasizing the role of inheritance in IQ in their book The Bell Curve. So how could the gay-rights movement expect the same idea to be sympathetically received in the case of homosexuality?
The answer, as it turned out, was that in the liberal culture, genetic explanations were considered good or bad not on the basis of their scientific merits, but only on the basis of whether they were deemed to be helpful or harmful to the group in question. No matter how much evidence might be amassed to demonstrate the heritability of intelligence, ways had to be found to discredit that evidence because it was considered bad for blacks. Conversely, however, the scantiest evidence for the existence of a “gay gene” was enthusiastically seized upon because it was thought to be good for homosexuals.
Admittedly, there was also strong resistance to the idea of a gay gene. Plenty of scientists remained unpersuaded by the evidence and said so. Nor did every supporter of the gay-rights movement agree that the discovery of a gay gene would be good for homosexuals. Some worried that it might lead to the aborting of fetuses carrying the gene, or that it could create a demand for genetic surgery to eliminate it in adults. Nevertheless, as can be seen from the breathless account given by Chandler Burr in A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation,4 the general disposition was to welcome this research as a hopeful development, and to look forward to the day when the hard sciences would lend their imprimatur to the new party line.
In the meantime, personal testimony was summoned to carry the main burden of persuading the world that homosexuals were born and not made. As more and more homosexuals propelled or found themselves pushed out of the fabled closet in which so many had once concealed their “orientation,” novel after novel, play after play, and memoir after memoir poured from the presses, and with few exceptions the authors of these confessionals proclaimed that they had been attracted to other men from as far back as they could remember. Many told harrowing stories of the shame they had felt and the consequent anguish they had gone through in fighting against their own sexual appetites. Many had contemplated suicide (and others they knew had actually committed it). Many had tried various forms of therapy in the hope of being cured. Many had married and fathered children. All in vain. The only hope, and the only salvation, lay in the recognition that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with homosexuality, or with the uninhibited pursuit of happiness through sex with other men.5
Before 1980, in the decade or so immediately preceding the outbreak of AIDS, much of this literature was defiant in tone and suffused by the radical spirit of the liberationist 60’s. It celebrated “the joys of gay sex” and the promiscuity almost invariably associated with it as superior to the pale and timid pleasures available to the monogamous middle-class couple. And it did this in spite of the fact that even before AIDS had made its appearance, lesser venereal diseases were already spreading at a very rapid rate among homosexuals as a result of promiscuous anal and oral intercourse.
A grim account was given by Randy Shilts, the gay journalist who in And the Band Played On produced the most authoritative early book on the AIDS epidemic (and who would later die of the disease himself). On the eve of its outbreak, Shilts wrote, gay men
were being washed by tide after tide of increasingly serious infections. First it was syphilis and gonorrhea. Gay men made up about 80 percent of the 70,000 annual patients to [San Francisco’s] VD clinics. Easy treatment had imbued them with such a cavalier attitude toward venereal diseases that many gay men saved their waiting-line numbers, like little tokens of desirability, and the clinic was considered an easy place to pick up both a shot and a date.
None of this deterred a gay paper from running an article in praise of “rimming” (oral-anal sex) as a “revolutionary act.” Along the same lines, Edmund White, the co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, even proposed at a public meeting that “gay men should wear their sexually transmitted diseases like red badges of courage in a war against a sex-negative society.” A young homosexual named Michael Callen, who was present at that meeting, who had already had 3,000 sexual partners, and who (like White himself) would eventually come down with AIDS, remembered thinking: “Every time I get the clap I’m striking a blow for the sexual revolution.”
Today, by sharp contrast, we have a flood of articles and books whose purpose is to show that homosexuals like White are untypical and that they do not really speak for the gay community. These writers tell us that homosexuality is no more significant than (to cite a much-invoked image) left-handedness; that most homosexuals are ordinary, decent people who differ from heterosexuals only in their manner of expressing love; and that they aspire to nothing more than ordinary decent middle-class lives. Far from being sexual revolutionaries ideologically committed to promiscuity, they are great believers in “family values” and would settle down and enter into loving long-term monogamous relationships if society would but let them. Indeed, we are now told, the radicalism preached and the promiscuity practiced by self-described “queer” theorists and activists are themselves products of social oppression, and upon social acceptance will eventually disappear.6
In a recent article in New York magazine, Daniel Mendelsohn laments the trend exemplified by this literature as the “heterosexualization of gay culture.” Gay books and plays, he complains, “are less likely to celebrate the initiation into a world of avid sexuality . . . than they are to emphasize the importance of (who knew?) family ties.” Even Michelangelo Signorile, who became famous for outing closeted celebrities, has grown tame, Mendelsohn reports: “Recent columns [by Signorile] include thirtysomething meditations on the paradoxes of monogamy (‘Sex and the Not-So-Single Guy’) and the difficulties of reconciling a gay lifestyle with traditional family life (inevitably, ‘Homo for the Holidays’).” And, casting an interesting light on the issue of how much choice is involved in homosexuality, Mendelsohn asks: “If you look straight, act straight, and think straight, why bother being gay?”
But even Mendelsohn acknowledges the political benefits that have come from the new party line, which originally emerged in response to the appearance of AIDS. Fearing, reasonably enough, that this horrendous disease—intimately tied as it was to promiscuous anal intercourse and other joys of gay sex—would be a political disaster, gay activists advised (in the words of one handbook) that “In any campaign to win over the public, gays must be portrayed as victims. . . . Persons featured in the media campaign should be indistinguishable from the straights we’d like to reach.” These tactics have succeeded brilliantly. Instead of turning homosexuals once again into pariahs, AIDS confirmed and reconfirmed their status as victims, thereby enhancing their claim to be considered an oppressed minority while also guaranteeing them additional sympathy and increasing their political clout.
Nothing seemed to interfere with the progress of this astonishing development. At first it chugged along steadily under the aegis of the dogma (bolstered by the politically manipulated statistics of public-health agencies and the propaganda of the AIDS establishment) that heterosexuals were just as much at risk as homosexuals. But then it flourished equally well when, after a while, most people, just by looking around them, quietly came to the conclusion that insofar as AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease (though it could also be transmitted through the shared needles of drug addicts or through blood transfusions, and though the situation might for some reason be different in Africa or India), in America it was overwhelmingly confined to homosexuals.
Nor did the AIDS epidemic lead to a condemnation of the sexual acts that were a prime cause of it. On the contrary, these acts were now represented as perfectly proper so long as they were practiced “safely” (i.e., with a condom or a dental dam). And most incredible of all, children in the early grades of primary school were even given lessons in the correct techniques.
Finally, there was the effect of AIDS on the idea that homosexuality was an inborn, involuntary condition. Congressman Gunderson once delivered a passionate little lecture on the subject to Newt Gingrich:
“Newt,” I said, “you’ve got to understand that . . . [California Congressman William] Dannemeyer and the far Right are just plain wrong when they say that being gay is a choice. You’ve got to know that I spent years desperately trying to change my orientation. I don’t know a single person who would choose to go through the hell of being a gay person in a society that despises you.”
AIDS also gave a great a-fortiori boost to this argument: who would choose the risk of dying an early death in so horrible a manner?
So there, more or less, is where we now are. It is a place in which homosexuality is already so widely accepted that not even the knowledge of its connection with AIDS can tarnish or compromise its new reputation as a normal and healthy “orientation.” A few holdouts among the psychoanalysts and psychiatrists still insist that it is a neurotic disorder, and most religious conservatives, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, continue to stigmatize it as a perversion. There is, for example, Jeffrey Satinover, a psychiatrist who writes from a religious perspective. In Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,7 Satinover has produced a powerful polemic maintaining that homosexuality is simultaneously a kind of addiction and a sin. Like other addictions, he says, it is treatable if the addict wishes to free himself of it (which to Satinover is the same thing as saying that, like other sins, it can be successfully overcome if the sinner repents).
But the holdouts are all very much on the defensive, and the moral and intellectual confidence they once enjoyed seems to be oozing out of them as the surrounding culture pounds away at and stigmatizes their assumptions and beliefs. Religious opponents of the gay-rights agenda are treated as troglodytes and a menace to liberty; the Supreme Court has found a special “animus” behind an amendment to the Colorado state constitution declining to afford homosexuality the same civil-rights status as race and religion; and gay activists in the APA have been trying to get “homophobia” recognized as a “psychological abnormality.” This same group within the APA has also charged that psychiatrists who treat homosexuals wishing to become heterosexuals are “unethical” and guilty of “an abuse or misuse of psychiatry.”
The holdouts know full well that the drive to legalize same-sex marriage is mainly aimed at getting the law to make what Andrew Sullivan, one of this campaign’s leading proponents, calls “a fundamental statement that our loves are as good as anybody else’s.” But how long can they resist even this final closing of the gap between the culture and the polity?
In short, I believe even less than I did a few years ago that “we are turning this thing around,” and I do not believe that we are likely to do so in the foreseeable future.
Yet for whatever it may be worth—and I fully realize how little it may be worth—I for one will go on withholding my assent from this triumphant march. Though there is nothing I can do to stop or even to slow it down, it will have to proceed on its way without my approval or support. Let me try to explain why.
Having known many homosexuals personally, and having done a good deal of reading on the subject, I do not doubt that some young boys are so driven by the lust for other men, and so erotically repelled by women, that for all practical purposes the only choice they have is between homosexuality and chastity. Nor do I doubt that a biological or genetic factor is at work here. Of course it does not follow from this that homosexuality is healthy; after all, many disabilities, diseases, and self-destructive tendencies are genetically transmitted. Still less does it follow that there is no room for free will, as witness the many people (including those with powerful homosexual inclinations) who have successfully struggled against inborn predispositions.
Yet if I do not doubt that some young boys are in effect doomed from the beginning to a choice between homosexuality and chastity, neither do I doubt that other young boys are what E.L. Pat-tullo has characterized as “waverers” who are capable of going either way.8 They can yield to the temptation of homosexuality if they are encouraged or seduced into it—and, pace Congressman Gunderson, in this day and age when feminism has made girls even more formidably intimidating than they have always been to young boys, and especially to young boys of uncertain sexual formation, getting entangled with women can actually seem more frightening even than AIDS. Such boys, however, are no longer helped by the world around them to resist the homosexual temptation and to overcome their fears of a normal life. They are instead being abandoned to the ministrations of a culture that not only legitimizes homosexuality but glorifies and glamorizes it, even to the point of representing those who die of AIDS as martyrs and heroes and even as angels.
I do not regard homosexuals, not even those who fall victim to AIDS, as martyrs and heroes, let alone as angels. Nevertheless my heart goes out to all of them because I believe that—even aside from AIDS—the life they live is not as good as the life available to men who make their beds with women.
The reason is that men tend by nature to be promiscuous, and they only become monogamous when women force them to “settle down” in exchange for the comforts and pleasures of a stable home and the delights and the troubles, the challenges and the anxieties, that together constitute the rich fascination of fathering and raising children. It is because homosexuals have no women to restrain them that they are generally so promiscuous (whereas lesbians, being women, do tend toward monogamy); and because they are so promiscuous they are doomed to an endless series of anonymous and loveless encounters—not to mention the risk of disease and early death.
Homosexuals of a conservative disposition have come to acknowledge this, and they hope to cure it through the legalization of same-sex marriage. Here is an unusually succinct statement of their hope, taken from the jacket of William N. Eskridge, Jr.’s The Case for Same-Sex Marriage9:
Whether because of the biology of masculinity or the furtiveness of illegality, gay men have been known for their promiscuous subcultures. Promiscuity has encouraged a cult of youth worship and has contributed to the stereotype of homosexuals as people who lack a serious approach to life. It is time for gay America to mature, and there can be no more effective path to maturity than marriage.
And yet Andrew Sullivan, who in his book Virtually Normal makes much the same argument as Eskridge, qualifies it with the proviso that the need for “extramarital outlets” should be recognized by both parties in a same-sex marriage. Why, he asks, should the “varied and complicated lives” of gay men be constrained by a “single, moralistic model”?10
It would seem, then (with all individual exceptions noted and acknowledged, here as elsewhere), that it still takes a woman to domesticate a man, not another man. This means that same-sex marriage will in all probability not spell an end to promiscuity and an embrace of fidelity even among those homosexuals who will avail themselves of the right (and by all indications, they are likely to be few in number). After all, as Mark Steyn remarks in a brilliant little piece about Sullivan’s book in the American Spectator, “a grisly plague has not furthered the cause of homosexual monogamy, so why should a permit from the town clerk?”
One might add that this grisly plague has not even furthered the cause of avoiding death at its hands. There was a period during which the fear of AIDS seems to have reduced the number of partners among homosexuals from the formerly not uncommon hundreds or even thousands per year—yes, hundreds or even thousands—to an average of eight per year; and during the same period condoms were evidently used in many of these encounters. All this slowed the progress of the epidemic within the gay community. By 1991, however, writes Jesse Green in an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine as highly sympathetic to homosexuality as we would expect from anything appearing in that publication, “it was common knowledge that men who had been safe for at least six years were slipping more and more often, and that many men who had never been safe saw no point in starting now.” The result is that, if current trends continue, “more than half of the nation’s twenty-year-old gay men will contract HIV during their lifetime.” And in San Francisco alone, the rate “even among the population of older, white gay men . . . has nearly doubled in just the last six years.” (According to a still appalling but less drastic estimate cited by Satinover, only “30 percent of all twenty-year-old homosexual males will be HIV positive or dead of AIDS by the time they are thirty.”)
When Green tells us that homosexuals are “returning to the unsafe practices of the past,” he means not only that they are discarding condoms but that (contrary to the new anti-“queer” party line) they are reverting to a life of unrestrained promiscuity. As in the early days of the epidemic, the subject of promiscuity is once more becoming “taboo,” and (again contrary to the new party line) anyone who raises it, whether straight or gay, is accused of homophobia. “Why,” asks Green, contemplating this bewildering situation, “are gay men—ordinary gay men, who appear to function normally and enjoy the pleasures of life—systematically killing themselves?”
He comes up with no definitive answer. But surely the answer lies in the very fact that so many homosexuals (including Andrew Sullivan himself, as we learned when he announced upon resigning from the editorship of the New Republic that he had contracted the AIDS virus) are willing to court death rather than give up being promiscuous. Surely this fact powerfully suggests that promiscuity is an intrinsic and all but inescapable component of male homosexuality. And surely the same fact also gives the lie to the idea that homosexual promiscuity is the product of social and legal oppression, since the near-disappearance of such oppression seems only to have made matters worse.
George Orwell said that we live in a time when the obvious needs constantly to be restated, and so, to restate what was once self-evident to everyone, including most homosexuals themselves: men using one another as women constitutes a perversion. To my unreconstructed mind, this is as true as ever; and so far as I am concerned, it would still be true even if gay sex no longer entailed the danger of infection and even if everything about it were legalized by all 50 states and ratified by all nine Justices of the Supreme Court.
If that should ever happen, and if I am still around when it does, I hope I will still have the strength to hold on to my own sense of the fundamental realities of life against the terrible distortions that have been introduced into the general understanding of those realities by the gay-rights movement and its supporters. For it is this that is mainly at stake here, and it is this that explains why the issue of homosexuality is of such great moment not just to the proportionately small number of practicing homosexuals, but to all the rest of us as well.
1 Dutton, 327 pp., $24.95.
2 Beacon Press, 366 pp., $27.50.
3 Johns Hopkins University Press, 275 pp., $35.00.
4 Hyperion, 354 pp., $24.95.
5 As will already have been evident, I have been talking all along only about male homosexuality. Lesbianism is now invariably linked with male homosexuality in public discourse, but in my opinion it demands to be treated as a separate phenomenon. Since I cannot do that here, I will restrict myself to observing that lesbianism has achieved perhaps an even greater degree of acceptance than male homosexuality. One sign is the swelling volume of academic studies and popular reports trying to demonstrate that children raised by lesbian couples turn out as well as, or even better than, children in normal families. Recently, in the space of a few short weeks, we had at least one book (In the Name of the Family by Judith Stacey), a long article in U.S. News & World Report, and a network television drama “based on a true story” (“She's fallen in love with another woman. Does that give her mother the right to take her child away?”) trying to sell us this highly implausible thesis. Another sign is the appearance of a satirical book by Helen Eisenbach entitled Lesbianism Made Easy (“Some people are born lesbians, some achieve lesbianism, and some have lesbianism thrust upon them.”); it seems doubtful that a book taking this tone about male homosexuality would be published today.
6 In the past few months alone, we have had, in addition to those already mentioned above, the following books devoted to making these points (and this is by no means a complete list): Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest by Will Fellows; A Boy Named Phyllis: A Suburban Memoir by Frank DeCaro; Gay Olympian: The Life and Death of Dr. Tom Waddell by Tom Waddell and Dick Schaap; Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance by Richard A. Isay, M.D.; and American Gay by Stephen O. Murray. Under the heading, “Gay and Lesbian Books for Fall,” Publishers Weekly (September 30) lists a “selection” of no fewer than 123 new titles.
7 Baker Books, 266 pp., $17.99.
8 “Straight Talk About Gays,” COMMENTARY, December 1992.
9 Free Press, 296 pp., $25.00.
10 For a discussion of Sullivan's book, see James Q. Wilson, “Against Homosexual Marriage,” COMMENTARY, March 1996.